Over 300,000 U.S. students study abroad each year and that number is growing. David Suomi, a Risk Management Consultant with Travel Document Systems (TDS), recently had the opportunity to speak with Scott Lockman, Sr. Vice President at Assurance, about what academic institutions – and families who are preparing to send a student overseas – should be thinking about for the best possible outcome.
TDS: Most academic institutions today who offer study abroad programs have a process in place for preparing students before they leave the United States, but what other things should they be thinking about?.
Lockman: You're right, most institutions will have some sort of process – whether it's a training or a one-on-one with a campus representative. After all, the student is traveling abroad and will be a representative for their school. Universities want to ensure their students are prepared for different scenarios. But I'd submit it's not only important for universities to have a documented process for outbound students, they should also have a re-entry plan when they finish their studies. There can often be an adjustment period for students as they return to what had previously been their typical school schedule. Presumably, they've been exposed to different cultures, languages, and people, and this should be celebrated and discussed upon their return.
TDS: You mention exposure to different cultures. Do you think it's important for universities to provide cultural and security training to outbound students?
Lockman: Yes, definitely. Students should have a sense of what will be expected of them culturally once they arrive at their destination. Topics include currency, customs, and traditions. It's also important in today's international climate that students are trained on how to respond to any potential security threats and/or danger while traveling abroad. Accidents happen, and students should always know where the closest U.S. Embassy is located and have the phone number saved in both their mobile device and also stored in their TDS Document Profile Locker.
Pertaining to culture, it's important for students to understand the local drug and alcohol laws at their destination.
TDS: People get sick, whether they're traveling or not. What should students know about their healthcare insurance?
Lockman: Healthcare is always a top concern when students are studying abroad. People get sick, accidents happen, and universities need to ensure they've prepared for the worst case scenario. From an internal perspective, we recommend the university researches each city/country to which students are traveling and have a list of approved medical institutions.
Students will need to take responsibility and check in with their health insurer to see if their policy includes coverage for international medical evacuation. We can't stress enough how important it is to understand your health care coverage.
Another important factor is prescriptions. If the student takes medication, they need to be sure they can continue to source that medication abroad. Are vaccinations up to date?
(Click here for a list of vaccinations by country)
TDS: Do certain countries offer local health insurance?
Lockman: Some countries demand that travelers who are staying for a certain period of time have local health insurance policies. To know if that applies to a particular situation, I recommend checking with the university or the local embassy in the United States. Again, do your research and work with a reputable company. Understand the rating of the company providing your coverage and what the policy covers.
TDS: We advise colleges and universities to create a communication plan for evacuation and natural disasters. We encourage them to review their plan with students. What other topics would you advise universities to discuss with their students?
Lockman: I'm sure you'd agree, David, that all travelers, including students, should enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), provided by the U.S. Department of State. This ensures that the U.S Embassy is able to locate the traveler if there is an emergency. Another benefit of enrollment includes staying updated on important information about safety conditions.
We also recommend the university have a knowledgeable representative at the destination to act as the main point of contact. Students and parents should be given full contact information for this point of contact. This person could be someone employed by the sister school or even an alumni of the university. The idea is that they'd be able to assist with the transition, answer any questions, and essentially be available for those students. Some universities have entire departments dedicated to helping the student assimilate – it all depends on the size of the university and/or program.
TDS: Should students consider obtaining personal property coverage for valuables?
Lockman: Students and parents should go over organization policies and look to buy personal insurance with an experienced broker who understands international coverage. Check limits and exclusions of organizational policies and discuss with students.
TDS: Any final thoughts for students considering a study abroad program?
Lockman: I can't stress enough how important it is to research the country that you're traveling to and understand the basics, like how to obtain an international drivers' license... if it's even possible. What types of health care coverage do I need if I get sick? Do I have all my documentation in order to travel?
I encourage parents to make a list of their concerns and discuss it with the academic institution. In most cases, they won't be the first person to ask the question! Students often comment that studying aboard changed their perspective on the world in very positive ways. Let's encourage our kids to travel and learn about new cultures and meet different people, but let's be sure they're prepared.
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